29

As an amateur bedroom composer working in a DAW on my song, I might have a general idea of how something ought to sound, but through endless 'random walking through knob space' - i.e. tweaking different values on the synth while listening to the same part on repeat - eventually I get hyper-familiar with the tune and everything sounds much of a muchness. I reach a point where I think the sound is good enough and leave the project for a few hours. Once I've forgotten the tune, I come back to it and play it from the beginning and it sounds awful.

I'm wondering how professional electronic musicians or sound engineers deal with such effects when they become hyper-accustomed to what they're listening to. These people presumably operate under deadlines, and so taking multi-hour breaks to 'forget' the recent piece of work just can't be feasible.

Is it just a matter of taking regular short breaks and being disciplined about stopping when you can no longer tell if you're making a positive difference? Or are there other tricks involved, like listening to similar/totally different music to 'reset'?

  • 36
    When I worked in a professional studio there were two types of engineers. 1) take breaks and work short hours to keep the ears fresh. And 2) work 23 hours, sleep for 45 minutes, realize it all sounds like shit and fix it for 23 hours. Repeat as needed. Just kidding the first kind didn’t exist. – b3ko Jul 24 at 23:17
  • 1
    There's nothing unique in this question to electronic producers/composers, specifically. – iono Jul 26 at 6:49
  • 2
    I mean, yes it is possible to continually play an analogue instrument to fatigue, but that requires physically playing it each time, and furthermore analogue instruments don't have that infintesimal control over various aspects of their precise sound. It is altogether far too easy to set your electronic composition to repeat a single bar, then tweak knobs until all memory of silence has left you. – Ingolifs Jul 26 at 21:03
  • 1
    @b3ko Exactly, and the second group's solution to listening fatigue is invariably to turn up the volume. – user207421 Jul 27 at 2:16
28

One of the most common pieces of advice I hear about this is to take breaks. You're right that in some situations (extremely tight deadlines, for example) this may not be practical, but in reality, it's the best way to achieve the results you hope for.

Listening fatigue is a real thing, and the phenomenon you describe, coming back to a song you liked only to discover it's awful, is very common. It's so common, in fact, that I often hear advice stressing to leave the project for days, not just hours, and come back to listen to it again with "fresh ears."

  • 15
    In my experience taking breaks actually helps you make the deadline. The delays caused by not taking breaks are longer than the breaks. – Todd Wilcox Jul 24 at 23:29
  • Interesting, this is kind of what I expected. I wonder if working on two completely separate songs and dividing your workflow between them whenever your ears get tired is an approach that anybody uses. – Ingolifs Jul 25 at 1:08
  • 2
    I do that. It's recommendable, more if you are working on related songs, say, all belonging to the same album, where you want to sound coherent, that approach can make you try things which can later somehow be translated to another song, and that you would not see otherwise. – 89f3a1c Jul 25 at 1:13
16

Taking breaks has been mentioned, and is obviously a good idea!

Other ideas:

  • A change is as good as a rest: work an a different project for a while, and come back to the first one
  • listen to other music in a similar style - or even a different style - to get your bearings again, and tune yourself back in to what's normal
  • listen on different systems, and at different volume levels. If you're feeling tired, that might be a good moment for the 'how does it sound in the car?' check.
  • don't listen too loud for too long - temporary hearing loss won't help you, and nor will permanent hearing loss
  • pay attention to more general health stuff: nutrition, hydration, sleep, exercise. It's possible to die playing video games for days on end; I'm not sure I've heard of it happening from tweaking a mix for days, but you don't want to be the first!
6

3d12 and topo morto covered most of it, but having a good set of (correctly positioned) studio monitors also makes a huge difference. You can mix more effectively and at a lower volume, and you tend to spend less time wandering down the wrong path because you can identify problems more precisely.

I make somewhat bottom-end heavy industrial electronica but with vocals and a more rock-like format. I recently upgraded to a pair of Yamaha HS-8s that have good even frequency response down to 40Hz. Suddenly I realized that a lot of my problem was being unable to properly hear the separate components of the track to be able to mix correctly and get bits out of the way of each other, and that my old speakers and headphones had terribly uneven EQ (even the best headphones start to lose their highs within a few years), but in opposite directions - so a mix done on speakers would sound terrible in headphones, and vice versa.

  • 4
    Agreed. I tend to spend most of my mixing time trying to get to a point where I can hear each track clearly. I treat it like a hearing test and use the lowest possible volume where I can still hear all the tracks. As I turn down the master fader even more, the first track to drop out of the mix is the one that is lower than all the others. Once I'm able to at least hear everything and have some rough sense of balance among the tracks, I can make a second -- much shorter -- pass at a moderate / high volume to check if any track is overly emphasized. I'm not a professional; YMMV. – Kyle Krull Jul 25 at 21:23
  • 1
    @KyleKrull that's a very interesting technique! But I'm not sure if it's really good for all styles. In many tracks there are elements that you don't really hear except at ideal conditions, but they nevertheless contribute to the result in important ways. – leftaroundabout Jul 26 at 9:33

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.